‘Not Special Needs’ – Time to Rethink How we Advertise Disabilities…

Shauna Kearney, Doctoral Researcher, Centre for Business in Society

In today’s society, 1 in 5 people are recognised by the World Health Organization (2011) as having a disability. People of all races, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds can experience disability in their lifetime. Due to the growth of disability culture and its visibility, having a disability is now represented alongside variations in race and ethnicity and contributes to another dimension of a person’s identity and culture.

In an attempt to tackle the terminology used when referring to people with Down Syndrome, in March 2017, an infomercial was launched by CoorDown, the National Coordination of Associations of People with Down syndrome, to coincide with World Down Syndrome Day. This infomercial, entitled ‘Not Special Needs’ brings a humorous approach to Down Syndrome, while a serious undertone clearly expresses how people with Down Syndrome do not have ‘Special needs’ and do not appreciate being referred to by that term.

Within the advert, five lead actors with Down Syndrome are lending their voice to this campaign and explain why their needs are not different from anyone else’s. The advert is narrated by a female actor with Down Syndrome, which brings a greater reality to the advert. I appreciate that it allows people with Down Syndrome to have a say in how they are represented not just in advertising, but in their everyday lives. The labelling of disabilities can often be a sensitive area to address, with individuals, public policy makers and marketers not wanting to insult those with disabilities by using an incorrect or demeaning term. When members of minority groups experience mis(non)representation in marketing, it can have an instrumental impact on their levels of vulnerability which develops as a result of an imbalance in the marketplace (Baker, Gentry and Rittenburg, 2005). These representational practices can have significant outcomes, for example, people’s perceptions, even “misinformed perceptions”, often have “the weight of established facts” (Gordon, 1995, p. 203).

By clarifying that the needs of people with Down syndrome are akin to those of people without Down Syndrome and include “education, jobs and opportunities, friends and some love, just like everybody else”, this advert tackles the importance of changing language in the changing of attitudes, as labels and names can be used to reinforce stereotypes (Dajani 2001). The message that people of all races, ethnicities, cultures, genders share the same essential needs comes to the forefront of the infomercial and emphasises what these people have in common.

To date, research into disability in general has evolved as a stream of social science research, however business disciplines have paid comparatively less attention to the population with disabilities in their role as consumers. Only recently has this seen a change, with researchers such as Stacey Baker and Carol Kaufman Scarborough, focusing their work on the representation of people with disabilities in marketing. One area of knowledge which is still falling short is the (mis)/ representation of people with disabilities within advertising. Misrepresentation in this context refers to the practice whereby a group in included in the advertising, but in a way which is not true to the group.

As a large minority group in the global marketplace with an annual disposable income of $1 trillion, the representation of people with disabilities must be considered and represented in the correct way in line with how people with disabilities want to be portrayed. There has been a growing trend to date in the inclusion of people with disabilities in advertising, with major companies such as Apple, Mars Inc, and Guinness, all featuring people with varying disabilities in their campaigns in recent years. While this inclusion has been a welcome development, the responsibility now lies on the advertisers to consider the (mis)representation often associated with adverts featuring a minority group.

While it is encouraging to see an increase in campaigns featuring people with disabilities and an advert devoted entirely to people with Down Syndrome, the actors represented in CoorDown’s campaign constitute a small minority within a minority. Many people with Down Syndrome can experience difficulties in activities of daily living, and this advert does not fully represent this group. A possible remedy to this representation issue would be for future marketers to engage more with people with disabilities themselves when in the developing stage of the adverts. So, while I have no doubt the intentions of the advert developers were pure, and they have indeed increased representation, there is still a way to go before all people with disabilities experience true to life representation in advertising.

Originally posted on the MICS Network.


Baker, S. M., Gentry, J. W., and Rittenburg, T. L. (2005) ‘Building Understanding of the Domain of Consumer Vulnerability’. Journal of Macromarketing 25 (2), 128-139

Bolt, D. (2014) ‘An Advertising Aesthetic: Real Beauty and Visual Impairment’. British Journal of Visual Impairment 32 (1), 25-32

Dajani, K. (2001) ‘Other Research–what’s in a Name? Terms used to Refer to People with Disabilities’. Disability Studies Quarterly 21 (3)

Gordon, L. R. (1995) Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism. Arlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press

World Health Organization (2011) World Report on Disability [online] a [13/07/2016]



Coventry University